The most positive event in world cricket in 1998 was probably the first Mini World Cup, held at the end of October and won by South Africa. In itself, it was nothing special. The idea of raising funds for the game's international development was praiseworthy but, in the context of the current, insane, number of one-day internationals, this looked like another unnecessary tournament. Many top players were absent, including the entire England Ashes party. What mattered was the venue.
The tournament was held in Bangladesh almost by accident. The original plan was to fulfil ICC's fantasy and play in Florida. Then it was going to be Sharjah. But going to Dhaka validated the entire exercise. Only a few weeks earlier, the country had been ravaged by floods that were bad even by Bangladesh's own terrible standards, and some thought it was tasteless to go on. Nothing of the kind. Nowhere has ever been more grateful to see cricket. People told me, without a trace of irony, that it was the biggest event - not merely the biggest sporting event - ever to take place there. It was something to counteract the floods, cyclones, droughts, coups and earthquakes which normally bring the country to world attention.
On all the evidence so far, Bangladesh's playing standards place it a long way below Test status, and its players desperately need to learn the disciplines of three and four-day cricket before it can get there. But all that was true of Sri Lanka 30 years ago. The enthusiasm and potential here are even greater. Bangladesh is the ninth most populous country in the world. And, even in villages without electricity, people spent the week of the tournament huddled round transistor radios listening to commentary. The players who went, expecting to find who-knew-what, were cosseted in a first-rate hotel and an excellent stadium. A week there should be an obligatory side-trip on all future tours of the subcontinent.
The hero of the English cricket season of 1998 may well have been someone who is not even a cricketer: one David Batty. Batty was the England footballer who missed the crucial penalty in the shoot-out after the World Cup match against Argentina. England had only reached the last 16, but an atmosphere had built up that was already close to hysterical: every competing leisure activity, from eating out to theatre-going, was bleeding as the country went football-mad. English cricket seemed to be haemorrhaging.
It was a cold, damp spring. The Test team was doing badly. The County Championship was hardly registering. If the football team had got to the final, public reaction would probably have surpassed the Relief of Mafeking and VE Day put together: we live in a trivial age. More to the point, had they reached the quarter-final, the game would have been played on Saturday afternoon, in the midst of the Third Test against South Africa.
As it was, the England cricket team got booed off the field at Old Trafford that day. Had there been direct competition from a football match, there might not have been anyone there to boo. These were bleak hours for English cricket. If the papers noticed the game at all, it was usually to print feature articles announcing that it was finished, and that football was now the national summer sport. The ECB issued statements trying to show that cricket was actually doing jolly well, really, but failed to sound as if it had convinced even itself.
The weather got better. So did the Test team. Football went away for a week or two. But May - June 1999 is now looming as the most crucial period the English game has ever faced. The World Cup - the cricket one, that is - comes to Britain for the first time in 16 years. It will not return for a generation. No one inside the game needs reminding what a crucial opportunity this is. The weather has to stay fine; we need a lot of close finishes, preferably in those games that are on terrestrial TV rather than satellite; England have to excel themselves. But, gosh, what if the players start chewing gum?
The most remarkable event of 1998-99 was not Australia's sixth successive Ashes, which had been pretty much universally predicted, but what happened when the West Indians were finally shoved on to their flight to Johannesburg: they lost to South Africa 5-0, a rainbow-wash. But the decline of West Indian cricket will become real to some people only when they finally lose a series to England. In the spring, they won the Wisden Trophy for the 13th successive time, which finally ended the reign of the unshaven, gum-chewing Atherton and brought in Alec Stewart, the only contemporary English cricketer who looks as though he might have done National Service.
In all other respects, the change was seamless: the team's strengths and weaknesses remained much the same. England's troubles were more chronic than the West Indians', but less acute. And after that grim Saturday at Old Trafford they went into remission. England saved the match, dramatically. They won the Fourth Test, ditto. And then the Fifth - and thus the series- when, on the final morning, 10,000 crowded into Headingley to see the last two South African wickets fall. Momentarily, the cricketers, not the footballers, were getting the headlines, and admiring ones at that.
It was indeed momentary. Three weeks later, England were routed by the Sri Lankan spinner Muralitharan. They then went to Australia to face a team that would be without Warne, their nemesis in the three previous Ashes series, until the last Test. It was a curious series, in that England were highly competitive most of the time, only to revert to their old ways for short but decisive periods. These happened mostly against Warne's deputies: Stuart MacGill, a leg-spinner who had been temperamentally unsound in English league cricket, and Colin Miller, a happy-go-lucky journeyman seamer who had started experimenting late in life with off-breaks. Both would probably have been regarded as too oddball to make an England team.
Technically, England might have had bowlers to match them. But Miller and MacGill bowled with exuberance and panache, as though they would take a wicket any minute. England's spinners conveyed the air of men about to be straight-driven for four. There were gifted cricketers in the England team. But the England players were numbed by inhibition, as though fear (of failure, of being dropped, of being insulted by the crowd or the press) had drained all their zest for the game. It was the same off the field, too: the team seemed to take little pleasure from the experience of touring - with some reason, since the slightest indiscretion can be picked on by one of the more sanctimonious papers. There are several aspects of Australian cricket that England ought to emulate, but the studied nonchalance of Taylor's team was perhaps the least attainable.
The reply screens at the Tests in England last year were sponsored by the car firm Citroën. And so, during intervals at the Lord's Test, the screen kept showing Citroën's current advert, which consisted of the model Claudia Schiffer descending a staircase and getting into a car while simultaneously removing every item of her clothing. She did this, in about twice life-size, in full view of the Lord's pavilion. It was a remarkable disjunction.
At the time, a blocking minority of MCC had just ensured the continuation of the club's ban on women members. In normal times, that might have been the end of the subject for another generation. But an unusually determined MCC President, Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, accompanied by threatening noises from the sports minister, Tony Banks, had a remarkable effect. Essentially, members were told to keep thinking and voting until they came up with the right decision. In September, they did: 69.8 per cent of those who voted were in favour of change, above the two-thirds majority required, compared with 55.7 per cent in February. And in early 1999 five women were duly invited to become playing members.
The first vote had come at a time when two cases that were nothing to do with MCC (see Cricket and the Law, pages 1468-1469) had added to the perception that this was a game in serious need of sexual re-education. What was notable about the continuing debate was that the arguments advanced against the admission of women were generally stupid, mostly peevish and entirely selfish. The minority never explained how a game battling against heavy odds to retain its place in British hearts could do so if its most famous organisation so wantonly alienated half the population. What they talked about were their own privileges.
The change has come, and it is very welcome. But in practice, of course, MCC discriminates against almost all the population. The 57 million Britons who are not members have second-class access to the game's greatest occasions, as the World Cup final in June will show yet again, even though, on that occasion, members will actually have to pay their way. A random elite is still accorded privileges that would be unthinkable if the game were to start from scratch. What MCC needs to ask itself is what its function is to be in the 21st century. If it did not happen to own England's biggest and most historic cricket ground (an increasingly well-appointed one), MCC's entrance requirements would be of no more interest than those of Free Foresters or I Zingari. But it does matter, because Lord's matters. Does MCC exist primarily for the benefit of cricket as a whole? Or is it just a rich organisation whose first obligation is to its own members? Admitting women is a start. But only a start.
In the midst of South Africa's triumphant series against West Indies, the South African selectors were informed that the team was not good enough. Steve Tshwete, the sports minister, said that if an all-white side were sent to the World Cup it will be difficult for me to support them. The United Cricket Board has been obliged to respond with a policy of positive discrimination, fumbling and unclear at national level, overt and clear-cut below that.
The initial objection to the old South Africa was that its teams were not chosen on merit. That is true once again. There is exquisite irony here, but it still makes me feel uneasy. What value is a South African cap to a player who knows he is not there on his own ability?
Other countries have racial difficulties, too. In an informal, unspoken, very English way, cricketing apartheid has become accepted practice in England. The anti-racist banner has been picked up, but mainly by people whose love of sloganising far exceeds their love of the game. This does not invalidate their essential point. I know of nothing that constitutes active racial discrimination in English recreational cricket. But there is a great deal of what might be called passive discrimination, a refusal to go the extra inch and welcome outsiders into a club's often clannish atmosphere.
It has become normal for ethnic-minority players to gravitate towards their own clubs, and there is now clear-cut evidence of segregation operating, informally, in both Yorkshire and Essex. There is some element of choice about this on both sides: a report from the University of East London into the Essex situation showed that many non-whites think the traditional local leagues are too sociable and soft. Whites, on the other hand, regard Pakistanis, in particular, as standoffish because so few of them drink.
But the effect is that black and Asian players are operating outside the official structure. They have become second-class in all kinds of little ways. They play on poor pitches. And every week in summer, the Yorkshire Post reports the scores from about 50 leagues around the county, but the Bradford based Quaid-e-Azam League is not one of them: They can't get the results to us in time for Monday's paper, said a spokesman.
English cricket should now be reaping great benefit from the generation born here of parents who came to Britain in the great wave of post-war migration from the subcontinent and the Caribbean. England's first crop of West Indian players were nearly all born overseas. The new fast bowler Alex Tudor ought to be the harbinger of a galaxy of stars. But most of his black contemporaries have already been seduced by football, and many inner-city kids regard cricket as an Asian game. Indeed, county scorecards are starting to be enriched by names like Habib and Mirza and Sheriyar, all English-born. But there would be a great deal more if the white majority made a greater effort to encourage them. This is a moral issue. But for English cricket, it is also a question of self-interest.
The entire country was opposed to the introduction of two divisions in the County Championship. Unfortunately, the country concerned was Wales. Glamorgan were against the idea in the vote at the First-Class Forum last December, but were swamped by the English. Durham and Essex abstained; all the other counties voted for the plan. Many did so not from conviction but from a weary certainty that this was an idea which would not go away, and that (a little like the MCC members) they would keep getting beaten over the head until they acquiesced. Thus the top nine counties of 1999 will form a First Division in 2000.
It was the culmination of a debate notable for its intellectual incoherence. Lord MacLaurin, as ECB chairman, made no public case for the change, but forced the counties into accepting it by going around badmouthing the existing Championship more effectively than any media critic. One county chairman accused him of turning into Gerald Ratner, the jeweller who lost his empire after describing the products as crap.
Those who argued for two divisions did so for contradictory reasons; indeed some often contradicted themselves in the same breath. On the one hand, the reform was supposed to pep up the County Championship. On the other, reformers wanted the best players formally taken away from their counties and placed under the England selectors' control. Indeed, the new programme of seven Tests and a ten-game triangular one-day international tournament means that the bigger names will effectively take no part at all in county cricket. What kind of championship is that?
We will see how enthusiastic the supporters of change are when their team gets relegated (as is certain to happen) because they have given over their best players to England, or because of one freakish declaration, or rotten luck with the weather. How will the players feel when they find themselves capriciously relegated? How will the selectors evaluate form in the different divisions? Already, counties are finding parents of promising teenagers demanding assurances: I don't want my boy joining a Second Division club, you know.
The system, as introduced, makes no sense whatever. Six teams out of 18 will shift divisions each year. That will create confusion, not an elite. And the transfer system is to remain in its present rudimentary state, so players will have extreme difficulty bettering themselves.
The County Championship has to fulfil three functions. It is a competition, a public entertainment, and a preparatory ground for cricketers trying to climb to international level. Of late, quite obviously, it has been failing on each count (Championship attendances fell by almost ten per cent in 1998); and competitiveness and public interest may indeed perk up a fraction. But the third function is by far the most important, and in my judgment two divisions will work heavily against that, forcing counties into short-term decision-making as they duck and dive for immediate advantage. The young spinners England desperately need will get little chance to perfect their craft. This system, incidentally, is the absolute antithesis of what happens throughout Australian cricket, where the emphasis is on individual competition and mobility, while the clubs themselves remain static.
The whole scheme makes sense only for those who believe the counties should be heavily weeded, and reduced to a handful of big-city teams. It is a useful way-station on the road to that objective. I happen to think that would be a disaster, and that English cricket must be maintained and nurtured by 18 counties with full-time professional cricket. The counties have been bamboozled into a reform born of panic.
When the dust from the World Cup settles, cricket followers in England will wake up to a very different world. The BBC has lost its immemorial right to cover home Test matches, and deservedly so. For many years, its presentation of cricket has been (as with other sports) complacent and dreary. Many new techniques for broadcasting the game have been developed in the past two decades - from the blindingly obvious (showing the score continuously) to the technically magical (super slo-mo). So far as I am aware, not a single one has emanated from the BBC, though they cheerfully pinched the ideas from others.
The viewing figures will probably fall when Tests move to Channel 4 (and they will plummet for the one Test a year to be shown live only on Sky TV, which is unavailable in most homes), though I am not sure cricket will lose anyone who has really been watching. The coverage may or may not be an improvement. But it was a reasonable gamble by the ECB, which will enliven future bidding rounds without shunting too much of the game into the ghetto of satellite TV. The BBC lost out not because of its poverty, but because of its poverty of ideas.
So what has Channel 4 got to show first time out, on the bounce from what everyone hopes will be a successful World Cup? A clutch of Tests against New Zealand, the world's least charismatic team. It was an absurdity to give them four Tests this year, having allowed Sri Lanka only one in 1998. But there should be two occasions that would be a little bit special: 1999 marks the centenary of Test cricket at both Headingley and Trent Bridge. However, you'll never guess which two grounds have not been awarded Test matches this year. Oh, you've guessed, haven't you?
Careful readers will notice that among the innovations in this year's Wisden is an extra column in the first-class bowling averages. For the first time, we are using the widely understood initials (RF, RFM, RM, OB, SLA etc.) that denote bowling styles, to give readers an extra and important piece of information about a player. We hope, in time, to extend this service into overseas averages as well, but it is particularly interesting for the 1998 season given the absolutely wretched record of even the best-known English spinners.
The exercise proved a great deal harder than might be imagined. Spin bowlers are relatively easy to categorise, though both Saqlain Mushtaq and Sachin Tendulkar are now mixing up off-breaks and leg-breaks, like Sonny Ramadhin before them. Seam bowlers, though, create a problem. The distinction between a fast bowler, a fast-medium one and a medium-pacer is essentially one of opinion. Some reference books have started using an extra category, medium-fast, which is apparently somewhere between medium and fast-medium. An eight-year-old cricket fan (they do exist) asked me what the difference was between fast-medium and medium-fast. About one mile an hour, I supposed.
No human can measure bowling that accurately, and thus the medium-fast category will not appear in Wisden. The Speedster machine, a popular diversion at last year's Tests, is a help, but even that can be misleading here, since a bowler's average speed may disguise all kinds of possibilities: one may be very fast in the morning and slower as he tires; another may use the slower ball as a deliberate tactic; another may have just the odd really fast delivery.
To compile our list, we talked to umpires, coaches and batsmen. They frequently disagreed with each other, and sometimes we had to make a difficult judgment, which may be rather galling for a fast bowler who finds himself relegated from RF to RFM. Bowlers change, of course. Our view as that Dean Headley bowled fast towards the end of the 1998-99 Ashes series, but that in 1998 he was essentially fast-medium. Maybe fast fast-medium. But not medium-fast, or medium fast-medium. We will try to keep it simple.
The old maxim Never complain, never explain is a reasonable one, especially for Wisden editors. But, speaking as a bit of an old whinger myself, I also accept that there are some decisions that come better with an explanation.
The Five Cricketers of the Year are traditionally chosen by democratic election, by an electorate of one - the editor. In my own mind, there were at least five other cricketers who were not chosen but who, on their form in the 1998 season, warranted very serious consideration: Mark Butcher, Andrew Caddick, John Crawley, Hansie Cronje and Nasser Hussain. But there is also a tradition that Wisden editors feel free to ignore the obvious dictates of form and look for other qualities.
The current generation of cricketers is the most anonymous in history. Players hide behind their helmets and their agents, cocooned in their dressing-rooms, understanding little either of cricket's unimportance, or its importance. English county professionals are becoming increasingly assertive in small ways, but as a group they have failed miserably at projecting themselves.
Old Wisdens are full of the names of men who were local heroes even if they never played international cricket. Nowadays, it is a rarity for someone to come along and establish a special rapport even with his home crowd. Ian Austin is an exception. He is Lancashire to the marrow. When he succeeds, there is a special cheer in the Old Trafford pavilion because they regard him as one of their own. There ought to be dozens like him, but there aren't. That's why he is a Cricketer of the Year.
Two more of our new Cricketers of the Year began 1999 mired in controversy. The Australian umpire Ross Emerson called Muttiah Muralitharan for throwing in a one-day international against England at Adelaide; the vigorous and uncricketlike response of his captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, caused wide-spread criticism. The main blame must attach to Emerson who ignored both ICC and common sense by no-balling Muralitharan from apparent premeditation, rather than because one ball was delivered in a different way from any of the others.
This was the behaviour of a man with his own agenda. The quality of Australian cricketers may be unsurpassed at present, but their umpires could use a little humility concerning their own limitations. Australia cannot even reliably provide competent TV umpires - not an especially arduous duty - for Test matches.
The issue of throwing recurs in cricket history like outbreaks of flu. In 1898 and 1899 these Notes were simply headed A Note By the Editor, and it was solely on this subject. Yet the real problem in modern cricket is not the persistent thrower, who has mostly been eradicated, but the occasional deceitful chucker who throws the odd faster ball or bouncer. Such people are never called.
Muralitharan is a special case. Assuming his assertion - that he cannot unbend his arm - is correct, and it has not been disproved, then under Law 24 his action is legal. In my view, the Law is badly drafted, and there is a case for changing the wording. A bowler whose arm is bent has an extra advantage because he can clearly get extra snap from his wrist. But a man's entire career is at stake here. It is not a matter that can sensibly be dealt with by an umpire/show-off at a one-day international.
The one thing nobody noticed when Emerson thrust out his arm was how many runs England got for the no-ball. But Law 24 is badly drafted on this point too. Traditionally, a team gets no reward for a single off a no-ball except that the run moves out of the Extras line and is credited to the striker. This is unjust, and a minor - if long-standing - distortion of the game.
The experimental playing condition recently used in competitions like the County Championship and Sheffield Shield gives the batting side two extras for the no-ball plus anything that is scored from the delivery. This goes too far, and smacks of trying to teach the bowlers a lesson. The new ICC regulation, which applies in Tests and one-day internationals, awards one extra plus anything that is scored. This actually makes sense, and constitutes a small improvement. It should be incorporated in the forthcoming revision of the Laws.
Within the past two years, two cricketers, the former West Indian Test player Winston Davis and the young Yorkshireman Jamie Hood, have both been left tetraplegics by tragic accidents. Yet the game had no mechanism to respond to their plight. Cricket's attitude to charity - distorted by the benefit system - is hopeless. Normal human kindness seems to have been tossed overboard by the way the benefit system forces the able-bodied to beg.
The match played at Lord's on July 18 last year, on the 150th anniversary of W. G. Grace's birth, was billed, ludicrously, as a Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Match. This nonsense was attacked in these Notes last year and, by the time the game was staged (quite successfully), MCC had back-pedalled a little, and the two names had almost become a pair: Trueman and Statham; Laker and Lock; W. G. and Diana.
The worst of it was what happened to the money. The day raised £520,000 for the princess's memorial fund. This fund had already got more than £70 million; another half a million was neither here nor there, gobbled without a thought, barely touching the sides. When one thinks how much could have been done by sensible application of that money to causes close to cricket, one could weep.
Neville Cardus first went to Australia to report the 1936-37 tour. He was not far off 50. When the ambition of a lifetime is fulfilled, he wrote later, when a boy's dream comes true, something has gone from one's life. These days, as our Schools section makes clear, teams of teenagers regularly fly off to matches in the furthest corners of the globe. There are Under-19 Tests, an Under-15 World Cup even. This may help explain why professional cricketers who come up through the system get so blasé about the opportunities for travel that are part of their job, and turn into bored and boring tourists. Where are we going on our tour? one public schoolboy was overheard asking another last year. Barbados he was told. Oh, no! came the reply. Not again!